Exfoliation is a process many people use to rejuvenate their skin, and there are some undeniably beneficial effects, at least in the short term. The question is, are you doing long-term harm to your skin, or is it safe to continue? Can exfoliating prevent wrinkles, or is it just going to make them worse as time goes on?
What Even Is Exfoliation?
In order to get the most out of any health treatment, it's always a good idea to know what it is and how it works. In the case of exfoliation, there may be more going on than you think.
First, let's talk about the skin and how it behaves naturally. Your skin is made up of a number of different layers. At the top is the epidermis, which is what we most often think of like our skin. It's the outer layers, pierced by pores and hair follicles. Below the epidermis is the dermis, which is where connective tissues reside, as well as the roots of hair follicles and sweat glands. Below the dermis is the hypodermis, which contains fat, connective tissues, and blood vessels.
On a day to day basis, your epidermis is constantly changing. Thin layers of skin cells lay over top each other, like multiple layers of paint on a wall. The outermost layer is exposed to dirt, sunlight, and all the potential damage of living. Most of the skin cells there are dead or dying.
Layers beneath that outer surface layer are fresher, newer, and younger, and the lower they get, and the closer to the dermis they get, the newer they are. These layers look better, but they aren't as protective.
The natural cycle of new cells growing, rising to the surface as older layers are shed, and finally being shed themselves is called the skin healing cycle. For most people, this cycle lasts for around 28 days, though this number varies. The younger you are, the faster it is, and as you age, it slows down. By the time you're in your 60s, this cycle can take as much as 90 days.
As you age and skin isn't able to replenish itself as quickly, parts of it break down. Collagen production slows, and your skin's elasticity breaks down. Sagging and collapsing skin structure leads to lines, wrinkles, and an uneven appearance. Additionally, in those deeper points in the wrinkles, bacteria, and grime can build up, causing blemishes, inflammation, and breakouts.
When you exfoliate, you're stripping away the outer layer or two of skin, and leaving the fresher, newer, younger skin beneath. This makes you feel fresher and more exposed, and indeed, your skin will look better with more luster and a more youthful appearance.
Many believe that exfoliating enhances the speed of your skin cycle. When you're manually stripping off the outer layers, the inner layers need to hurry up to be protective of the way your skin needs to be to protect you.
Your skin does play an important role in your health, after all. It's a hard to permeate the barrier between contaminants and contagions outside and the squishy, vulnerable bits inside. That's why common advice during flu season is to wash your hands and avoid touching your face as much as possible. Gaps in your skin – like your eyes, nose, and mouth – are places where disease can get through that barrier.
This is also why an important part of skincare is making sure your skin is properly moisturized. If you let your skin dry out too much, it can crack and expose the dermis rather than just the epidermis, which is another potential entry for a disease.
The Possible Benefits of Exfoliation
So what is exfoliation going to do for you? After all, your skin is constantly refreshing itself just as a natural part of being alive. Does stripping that outer layer and exposing an inner layer actually benefit you?
First of all, it enhances beauty for many people. The outer skin can look dry and dull, while inner skin is more fresh and resilient in appearance. You'll never be able to get skin like that of a child again, those days are beyond you, but you can look a few years younger than you actually are with regular skincare.
Another potential benefit is that it can dry out your skin. Yes, we just said that drying out your skin is bad, but this applies more to people who have naturally oily skin and who are often fighting off a greasy appearance. Exfoliating can help strip out those natural oils – and replace them with a more subtle moisturizer – to balance out moisture levels.
Exfoliation can also boost circulation to your skin. This can help alleviate some skin problems, and boost your natural healing ability in those areas. Some claim it can fade stretch marks, though that's unlikely. It can, however, help reduce cellulite.
You may also be able to boost your natural collagen production, which helps stimulate more youthful-looking skin. However, in order to do this effectively, you should also be taking supplements to provide your body with more collagen, or the building blocks for collagen, or else it won't help. After all, if your body can't make more collagen, no matter how much it wants to, it's not going to be able to.
The 5th benefit is that when the outer protective layers of skin are stripped away, skincare products are able to penetrate deeper and have a stronger effect. This can be good or bad, depending on the kind of product you're using. Don't, for example, use a chemical peel after exfoliating with a mechanical scrub, or you'll do some serious damage to your skin that will take quite a while to heal.
Types of Exfoliation
There are two kinds of exfoliation: mechanical and chemical. The difference is pretty self-explanatory, but we'll cover it anyway.
Mechanical exfoliation is an exfoliation that works through the physical application of force. These are your coffee scrubs, your sugar scrubs, your microbeads, and so on. They're basically like rubbing very fine sandpaper over your face to remove dead skin and smooth out your epidermis. Some kinds of mechanical exfoliation don't even use a scrub, such as dry brushing.
Chemical exfoliation, meanwhile, tends to use a low-grade acid. This acid dissolves away the dead skin, dirt, and oils on your skin's surface, but is not strong enough to damage your underlying healthy skin, so long as you don't leave it in place too long. Any acid will deal damage to healthy skin if left in place too long.
Both types of exfoliation can damage the skin if done too often or too deeply, which is why it's generally recommended to use either a very mild exfoliating treatment once per day, or to use a slightly stronger one once or twice a week.
Can Exfoliating Cause Wrinkles?
You may have read before some people issuing warnings against exfoliation. "Your skin might look good now, but you'll get wrinkles sooner if you keep it up!" - Is this true?
In some ways, you can think of your skin the same way you might think of a child or a small animal. Left on its own, it has a certain energy level. If you play with it, you can ramp up that energy level, but eventually, it will get tired. Parents use this strategy all the time to get their kids to sleep.
With your skin, exfoliation is basically stimulating additional growth, similar to damage. You are, in a sense, putting yourself in a constant state of very minor injury, to stimulate healing.
Your skin will, eventually, get tired. Your body may run low on certain resources, or, like how a large wound can scar, will get tired of the basic level of healing and will take more drastic measures to avoid that damage in the future. At the same time, you may be breaking down some of the elements of your skin that help produce collagen, prematurely aging and reducing your ability to restore your skin down the line.
In a way, you can think of it like you have a fixed number of new layers of skin available to you throughout your life. As you lose them, they're gone, and your body isn't producing more. You don't grow new teeth when your adult teeth are damaged, and while your skin can restore itself, over time its ability to do so becomes more and more limited.
Now, no one ever reaches a point where their skin fully stops healing. It would be a very serious medical condition if they did.
Tips to Avoid Prematurely Aging Your Skin
If you want to avoid premature aging, there's a lot you can do to protect your skin.
First and foremost, start by limiting your exfoliation. You can still exfoliate, but don't do it every day, and avoid the harsher chemical peels and acids unless you have an actual skin disease that requires deeper treatment. Even some of the more abrasive scrubs can do damage if you use them too much, so be cautious about the products you use and how often you use them.
Wash your face in the morning. Your skin spends a lot of energy in repair mode while you sleep, so sebum and dead skin build-up. Washing it away in the morning can be just as effective as regular exfoliation, without the damage.
Speaking of sleep, try to get more sleep. Sleep is when your body heals, and under-sleeping is a chronic ailment that millions of people live with every day. Sleep more, and try to figure out ways to sleep more restfully.
Additionally, try to sleep on your back if you can get used to it. A lot of us are side-sleepers or stomach sleepers, but that can cause skin issues. Pressing one side of your face against a pillow can crunch and stretch your skin in odd ways, leading to wrinkles over time. More importantly, pillowcases can build up bacteria, skin, and grime, and pressing your face into that for eight hours is a terrible idea. At the very least, wash your pillowcases regularly, and try to go for silk if you can.
Take sun damage seriously. If you're planning a day out at the beach or on a sports field, using a strong sunblock is essential, but we all know that. More importantly, use a low-grade sunblock or a daily skin lotion or makeup that includes SPF protection. Even low-grade UV rays will damage your skin over time, long before they damage it enough to give you a sunburn.
Cut back on sugar in your diet. Sugar actually has a chemical effect on your collagen and reduces its elasticity. All those processed sugars and high-carb diets we eat are hampering our long-term ability to produce collagen and maintain elastic skin.
Kill the smoking, too. Smoking is bad for you in pretty much every possible way you can imagine, so just quit it. And no, vaping isn't that much better.
Some dermatologists also recommend avoiding anything that pulls, tugs and stretches at your facial skin. This includes making the "o" face from smoking, blowing bubbles in gum, or using straws, which stretches your cheeks. It also includes the skin around your eyes, which stretches out when you're squinting. Additionally, some recommend avoiding rough applications or removal of makeup, particularly around the eyes; having to pull and tug and heavily wipe at your face stretches the skin.
What about you? Do you have any hot tips you swear work for you? Please share them with us in the comments area below!